Thousands in Jerusalem for Orthodox Easter ‘Holy Fire’ rite

Ethiopian Orthodox Christian pilgrims hold candles during a ceremony of the "Holy Fire" at the Deir Al-Sultan Monastery on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem's Old City on April 15, 2023, on the eve of Orthodox EasterReuters

Thousands of Christians thronged Jerusalem on Saturday for the traditional Holy Fire rite ahead of the Orthodox Easter, despite a security clampdown in the holy city.

The ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the thousand-year-old rite takes place, was built over the site where Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected.

The ceremony, when a flame which the faithful believe sparks miraculously each year is brought from the tomb, marks the most important event in the Orthodox calendar.

Clutching candles, so they flame can be passed from one to another, pilgrims attended the church this year in reduced numbers.

The church is in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and for the second consecutive year Israeli police had told church leaders access would be considerably restricted.

In the past about 10,000 worshippers would fill the church, with many more crowding outside, before the flame was flown to Orthodox communities internationally.

This year’s ceremony also comes after deadly attacks and clashes in Israel, east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, and cross-border fire several days ago between Israeli forces and militants in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria.

On Wednesday, Israeli police said attendance inside the church would be limited to 1,800 people including 200 police officers as a safety measure.

AFP journalists said thousands of Palestinian believers and foreign pilgrims also gathered in the square outside the church, in adjacent streets and outside the walls of the Old City on Saturday.

Theophilus III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, emerged from the Edicule built over the presumed tomb of Jesus shortly before 3:00 pm (1200 GMT), bearing two bundles of lighted candles.

Cries of joy, cheers and singing broke out as the flame was passed between believers.

‘I feel in heaven’

“It’s like I’m dead and alive again... I feel in heaven,” said Laura, a 47-year-old Romanian tourist.

Georges, a Palestinian retiree living in the Old City, said he regretted that “many Christians from the West Bank cannot come” because of the lack of permits issued by Israel.

Police say the restrictions are intended to ensure safety after a stampede left several dead during a 2021 Jewish pilgrimage to Israel.

But many Palestinian Christians say they are proof of discrimination against them.

Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament, said on Saturday: “All Palestinians in east Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians, are suffering from the occupation. We must do more to end these restrictions, violations and police violence.”

Police spokesman Dean Elsdunne said the event was “very special, including for us the police”.

“Of course we want a lot of people to be able to come. But our number one priority is human life,” he added.

“We want to ensure that people can come and celebrate safely,” Elsdunne said of the restrictions.

Fasting for 55 days

Palestinian teacher Tamar Ashariyeh, 45, said she could only get within 100 metres (yards) of the site.

“I’m a local here, so I have to be inside this church, praying. I’ve been fasting for 55 days. It’s Easter time, so we have to celebrate,” she said.

Abed, a Palestinian merchant in the Old City, accused Israel of having “closed everything” for the ceremony.

But Maria, 25, said she lives in the area and was used to the measures.

“It’s a security issue. It’s much safer that way,” she told AFP.

Last year there were scuffles between worshippers and police who had set up barriers throughout the city’s Christian quarter.

Christians made up more than 18 per cent of the population of the Holy Land when the state of Israel was created in 1948, but now they are fewer than two percent, mostly Orthodox.